In the second meeting of the APPG for Best Brexit, former immigration ministers Liam Byrne MP and Mark Harper MP gave evidence about what the future of freedom of movement once we have left the European Union.
There was consensus upon:
- the need for a rational, fact-based approach to coming up with solutions
- immigration being one of the main issues during the EU referendum
- the need to broker a deal which bears in mind the needs of EU citizens resident in the UK and UK citizens resident in the EU
Liam Byrne MP, former Minister of State for Immigration,
Mark Harper MP, former Minister of State for Immigration
APPG co-chair John Penrose MP opened the meeting and asked what the future of immigration to the UK will look like. Will we have a points based Australian-style system? Should students be excluded from the numbers? How will our border forces cope?
Liam Byrne MP gave evidence first and said that the faster we can hammer out what would be sensible, the cleaner the debate will be. He said that he was the person who introduced the points-based system and created the UK Border Agency. He added that he wants Britain to develop as close as possible a relationship with Europe, and that his political ambition is for us to one day re-enter the EU.
Liam said that when he became immigration minister it became very clear to him at that time that there was an appetite across the EU for reform of free movement, and he wished that we had pushed harder for that reform, because we could have made changes that allowed us to remain in the EU.
Liam said he wanted to propose some reforms to free movement that he believed could attract wide support across the EU and had published a paper on his website. The paper says that we are now experiencing migration at record levels and that shouldn’t surprise us – migration is now at record levels globally, therefore we do need good strong systems to manage migration carefully and wisely. He said that he thought that we should be doing more on refugees and child refugees, that we should be letting in people with the skills we need for our economy, that we should let British people fall in love with whoever they like and that we should allow free movement of scientists and students to build our knowledge economy. The fifth principle is that we need to get a good deal for our citizens abroad. In 1860s-1940s millions of citizens moved abroad.
Liam said his proposal was simple and has three parts: part one was about extending the points system we created for non-EU migration to the European Union. We would only let in people making around £30,000 a year, allow a generous tranfer scheme, an intra-country transfer scheme. He would basically preserve the same rules that tier 2 operates under for EU migration, and allow some privileges for EU citizens. Part two is that he would allow them to apply for visa from within the UK EU and would be allowed to roll on the visa to a second or third or fourth employer. Crucially, all of those jobs would have to be offered to British citizens first, like the Swiss model, the resident labour market test.
Liam Byrne said that the third part would then be for low skilled migration. This has been one of the most controversial elements of immigration policy over the past 15 years. If you wanted to bring levels of migration down, taking out students and scientists, you’d set that quota at zero, but we can’t do that, not least because the agriculture industry would “fall over”. Liam said that he would ask the Migration Advisory Committee to draw up advice on what the quotas should be, possibly like the seasonal agricultural workers scheme we used to have. This would give an economically rational way of managing migration. He added that none of this can be divorced from domestic policy – we need a big migration impact fund. Liam said that we have, with the apprenticeship levy, the ability to revolutionise sectors in this country – we can transform the level of training in some areas and for some public services that’s going to be particularly important.
Giving his evidence, Mark Harper MP said that while immigration may not have been the only issue in the referendum campaign, it was a major issue – and that it is implicit in the concept of taking back control that people do want to see a reduction in immigration and the question of ‘by how much’ is a question for our domestic political debate. He said that we still have a lot of students coming to study in the UK, but the vast majority are now bona fide students, whereas before there were a lot of people coming who were who were not really students. He added that have increased the quality, if not massively reduced the numbers, of people coming in.
Mark Harper said that all the concerns that EU nationals in the UK have are shared by British nationals living in the EU. He said that the government needs to worry about British citizens first. It is not correct to say that any EU national can come here for any reason – you can stay for three months, and then you’re supposed to be employed, looking for work, or a student. Some people who think they are here legally may not be, because they don’t have comprehensive health insurance, for example. He said he wanted a system that doesn’t mean people have to go through a massive process to prove that they’re lawfully here. It’s not just about residents, it’s about the terms by which they can stay. He added that we need to give ministers time to have conversations with our European partners, so the offer can be delivered.
Mark Harper raised elderly British people in Spain as an example, as they rely on the Spanish healthcare system. If Spain let them stay, but did not give access to healthcare, that would be a problem. He said that the government needs time to do a proper piece of research.
Mark said that his starting position is that we should treat EU nationals as those who come from outside the EU, in a way that’s not different based on the country of origin – we should look at the skills they’ve got not the passports they hold.
Mark Harper said that if people want to bring their spouses to the UK, it’s reasonable that they should be earning enough money to support their family themselves. That earning limit, £18,500, is not a random number, it’s how much you need to not be on in-work benefits, because otherwise you’re bringing your family here and expecting the taxpayer to subsidise them. He said that he thought that those rules should apply to everybody, in an equal way.
He said that the issue of students is a perennial argument for all immigration ministers, and if students are genuine, and leave at the end of their course, they make no contribution to net migration. He said that what the university sector always used to tell him was that they were worried about the future, that the government might reduce numbers, but he still thinks that we need to count them, because if you don’t track people you’re setting yourself up for abuse. But, he said, he agreed with Liam that they are incredibly valuable to the economy.
Mark Harper that said that for workers, we should treat EU nationals as those from outside the EU, and that he wanted to challenge employers about where they get their labour from. When we have significant numbers of people not working he didn’t think the starting point should be importing people, and that we do have significant numbers of people who could work, and do some work, who aren’t working – about 600,000 people with a learning disability who are capable of being in the labour market, and about 800,000 who have a mental health problem.
He said that the Migration Advisory Committee produced incredibly useful reports which enabled economically rational decisions to be made about where there are skill shortages. He said that he thought that we can use it as a signal about where we should be training people. Regarding a migration impact fund, he said that he preferred a different mechanism to dealing with this, as there are places which have changed very quickly. Public services are not very responsive to changing in populations, and we need to question how we could make sure the health system and the education system are better at responding to changes in population, and to open new facilities and close ones that aren’t needed anymore. He said that he’s never read a story in the newspapers about a massive queue in Tesco, because the private sector is much better at responding to demands than the public services.
John Penrose said that neither of the witness had mentioned numbers or immigration quotas. Mark Harper said that he ran on a manifesto with a target and that he thinks it’s sensible to have a target, because if you don’t then you don’t have accountability in the system. He said that if you weren’t interested in the number, people wouldn’t find that very convincing. You need something to manage the system, so you know if it’s working well.
Liam Byrne said that he thought a target number was a mistake – it assumes a political significance due to its political appeal and it could stymie negotiations with European partners. If you want a divorce deal with a net migration target, you won’t get the best deal for Britain. He said he had looked at caps and found that you set up a ‘slightly Stalinist ministry of labour’ with targets for how many people each sector need.
A question was raised about the issue of British expat pensions and benefits for those who reside in the EU.
Mark Harper said that it’s not just about residents, and this is why it has to be reciprocal. Brits in EU countries can access healthcare, and those countries track that and send a bill back to the UK. Our system is not as good – we don’t track as well because we don’t charge, but Jeremy Hunt is trying to fix that. He said that we are going to have the same argument about pensions and benefits. People who were living in the UK before the referendum could legitimately expect that they can stay, post-referendum less so. He said that this is why it can’t be dealt with by a two line amendment to the Article 50 bill, and that it’s no good being able to live somewhere if those things aren’t resolved. He said that we need to deal with agricultural workers, but that he doesn’t think we should start with the assumption that we have to import large numbers of people. He said that we used to have a scheme before the EU movement rules, and it was a seasonal scheme, and you didn’t come for more than six months, and it worked very well.
Adrian Bailey MP said that he disapproves of targets, because if you don’t meet targets you’re going to reinforce public perception that immigration is out of control. He said that the focus on student numbers was also a problem – a lot of the headline figure of migration is students and it reinforces public perception of having more migrants He also said that many of the countries with whom we want to conclude a trade deal will want a relaxation of visa requirements.
Liam Byrne said that there are about a dozen trade agreements that cover 80% of our exports, and every country is going to want an immigration deal as part of a trade deal.
Mark Harper said that all of the existing agreements as part of the EU already have an immigration deal in them. He also said if you take students out of the immigration numbers, you don’t make a big difference to net migration. If students arrive and then leave, assuming the university sector is the same size, there’s going to be no impact on net migration from students. If the sector is growing, the growth from year to year will affect the numbers. Getting rid of them from the numbers doesn’t make us hit the target and excluding them doesn’t make a difference. He added that we need to make it clear we welcome students to the UK.
Michael Tomlinson MP said that he is the chairman of the APPG on youth employment, and that there is a difficulty in persuading unemployed young people into agricultural employment.
Ian Lucas said that he saw a report that the PM thought the present system for workers outside the EU was too lax, so does that mean we’ll tighten the system up across the board. He also said we must make the process of assessing immigration applications more open and understandable to the general public.
Mark Harper said that only people who have been politicians in this area really understand how this system works – it’s a massive volume system that processes millions of people a year. It generally works very well. It’s a difficult system to run, and that is one the reasons he doesn’t want a complex system for EU nationals. When he was in the department he said “is there a country like us with a system we could copy?”, and found that our immigration system is probably one of the best in the world – there’s no country with an obviously better system. He said we do have political decision-making to make discretionary decisions, where the rules don’t fit. He said that we need to give people confidence that we have a good, tough system and that one positive about leaving the EU is that the debate about what the system looks like will be up to us.
Liam Byrne said that there are a number of sectors in Britain with appalling levels of productivity which they’ve got away with because they’ve relied on low skilled EU labour. This is tightening now, with minimum wage rising and the training levy coming in. On benefits, he said that we’ll have to look at this anew, to create a process of earned citizenship, where people in Britain will earn some benefits with time. British citizens abroad, he said, we would have to think about their entitlement to benefits too.
Emma Reynolds MP said that she agreed Liam Byrne and Mark Harper that free movement won’t exist as we leave the EU, and mentioned that the Indian government has wanted to talk about visas, but surely the first free trade deal we’ll actually do will be with the EU, and they’ll want immigration as part of the deal.
Jeremy Quin MP said that he wondered whether a positive angle of leaving the EU be persuading the public that immigration is good on a targeted basis.
An assistant to Sharon Hodgson MP said that she had been working on Brexit and the fashion industry and that it was very hard to put a definition on future earnings in the fashion industry. Under current laws, her Turkish father would have been extradited, yet he had started many businesses in the UK. She said that there was a lack of nuance in the language used around immigration, that students felt they had to leave, and that immigrants were in fact an asset.
Mark Harper said that we have a very good arrangement for students – if you get a graduate-level job after graduating, you can stay – but we’ve not done a good job of selling it, He would like smart people to stay here and start businesses and add to economic growth.